Forget Syracuse athletics, No. 1 on our SU Top 100 list might be the best player to ever play the game of football. Jim Brown is not just the best athlete to come out of SU, he’s in the argument for the best athlete in American history. There’s Bo Jackson, Brown and who else?
Brown changed the history of Syracuse football once he arrived from Manhasset, New York in 1953. After arriving on campus without a scholarship, Brown became the only Black player on Syracuse’s freshman football team.
Brown’s illustrious career almost didn’t happen due to the racism of the 1950s. In his sophomore campaign, Brown began extremely low on the running back depth chart before injuries caused him to move up the list. Before talking to his high school superintendent, Brown had intended to quit.
“I know I was the best back there, and they were trying to tell me I wasn’t,” Brown once said. “The superintendent from my high school flew up there and told me that I’d regret it if I quit.”
Besides redefining the running back position, Brown also suited up for Syracuse’s basketball, lacrosse and track teams. Brown played basketball in his sophomore and junior seasons, starting 30 games. In his first year with the squad, Brown was the second leading scorer, averaging 15 points. After his junior season, Brown left the basketball team to the chagrin of teammate Vinnie Cohen who believed Syracuse would have won a national championship with Brown.
Instead, Brown spent his senior year leading a different Syracuse team to a National Championship – the lacrosse program. While there wasn’t an NCAA Tournament, Syracuse finished No. 1 in the coach’s poll. While his legacy focuses on his success on the gridiron, Brown was also one of the best lacrosse players of all-time. Twice he was named an All-American Midfielder and was co-leader of the 10-0 1957 Syracuse team. And it was because of Brown that lacrosse changed its rules so that players have to keep their sticks in constant motion when in possession of the ball.
When he ran for Syracuse’s track team, he finished fifth in the 1954 decathlon at the National AAU meet. One day in 1957, Brown won the high jump and javelin, and placed second in discus. Later that day he traded in his track suit for his lacrosse jersey and led SU to an 8-6 victory over Army to cap off an undefeated season.
Besides somehow competing in four sports during his time at Syracuse, Brown still didn’t play every sport he could have. SU’s boxing coach Roy Simmons Jr. thought Brown could have been a boxing heavyweight champion. Brown was also scouted by the Yankees in high school but turned down an offer to try pro baseball.
Clearly, even if he hadn’t played football Brown had plenty of options. There’s a world where we may instead be reminiscing about Jim Brown, the fantastic heavyweight boxing champ.
“Most dominant player to ever step on any athletic field,” Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis said of Brown
Brown was gifted with size and speed that had never been seen before. Besides being 6-foot-2, 232 pounds, Brown had some of the best balance ever seen from a running back. He was already a humongous runner. Adding in his ridiculous balance is just icing on the cake.
Over just nine NFL seasons before retiring at his peak at the age of 29, Brown won eight rushing titles. Over 60 years later, Brown is still the only rookie to ever win an MVP award. He tacked on a couple more MVP awards before retirement.
“He was bigger and faster and stronger than everybody on the field,” NBA all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said of Brown.
Abdul-Jabbar knows a thing or two about being bigger than everyone else. For Brown, that size led to incredible durability. Throughout his nine NFL seasons, he never missed a game, and rushed for 106 rushing touchdowns and over 12,000 yards. Even Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith admitted that, “He’s one,” when asked of the top running backs of all-time.
Even when there wasn’t a hole open for Brown to burst through, he made one himself. Whether through jukes, blazing speed, or trucking through defenders, he was solely focused on the end zone. Over 50 years after retiring, Brown is still the only running back to average over 100 yards per game for his career. Of course, nobody else ever led the NFL in rushing in eight different seasons.
In just his ninth game in the NFL as a rookie, Brown rushed for a record-breaking 237 yards against the Los Angeles Rams. Never has the NFL seen a player as dominant as Brown from the beginning of their career, all the way to the end.
Somehow, Brown wasn’t selected until the sixth pick of the 1957 NFL Draft. In the last game of SU’s 1956 regular season against Colgate, Brown scored 43 points on his own. After running for 196 yards, Brown found the end zone six times and kicked seven extra points. That NCAA record stood for 40 years. After the season, Brown was named a unanimous All-American. In just three seasons with the varsity team, Brown rushed for over 2,000 yards, averaging almost 6 yards per carry.
Besides his remarkable highs on the football field, and numerous athletic feats, Brown played an important role in our No. 2 player picking Syracuse. Ernie Davis was persuaded by Brown to choose Syracuse, despite Brown’s own race relations problems with the university. Thus, Brown led SU’s only Heisman winner to pick the Orange.
If we really want to dive down the rabbit hole, Brown also was impactful in our No. 4 player all-time choosing SU. Davis sold Floyd Little on becoming the next great Syracuse running back, with Little eventually donning Brown’s and Davis’ No. 44. If Brown hadn’t persuaded Davis to choose the Orange, Little probably doesn’t follow later on.
Syracuse’s football program would look much different, and there wouldn’t be the legacy of No. 44. Instead, it would probably be solely associated with Brown. SU may still be without a National Championship and a Heisman winner.
Of course, Brown’s own incredible career solidifies him as the best Syracuse athlete of all time. But don’t forget the role he played in two other members of the Top 5.
Besides possibly being the best football player and athlete of all time, Brown might be the best recruiter the Orange have ever had.
After he decided to retire from the NFL, Brown enjoyed a prosperous career in Hollywood. Besides breaking barriers at Syracuse and on the movie screen, Brown became an incredibly important Civil Rights activist.
Throughout all of the incredible moments of Brown’s career at Syracuse and afterward, it is a no-brainer that he should top our list of the best athletes in Syracuse history. While there have been incredible athletes to stroll through the Syracuse campus, Jim Brown is in a league of his own.